Tips for Crossing the Costa Rica/Panama Border with Children and a Car
This is Luis. Luis is a hustler. He helps confused gringos with too many bags cross the Panama/Costa Rica border. His only tools are a pen, mobile phone and people skills. I love meeting people like Luis because he reminds me that true entrepreneurial spirit isn’t about industry press, funding rounds, exit strategies, head count, taxes, etc. It’s about creating solutions to problems and busting your ass to make things happen. Thank you for being there when we needed you, Luis.
My family and I recently spent a two week trip in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We have been traveling now for 53 days, to Mexico, U.S., Costa Rica, Panama and now we’re back in Costa Rica. With two kids and more luggage than we probably need (we spent Christmas with family in the U.S. and accumulated gifts), we wanted to drive our car south to the Panama border (Sixaola side) to get to Bocas. Traveling in a car means you don’t have to pack so neatly, so tightly. You have the opportunity to spend less mental effort in the traveling exercise. Here are some things I learned on our journey to and from the border.
1. Don’t take your car, it’s not worth it.
Unless you are traversing Latin America in your car, there is no reason to take it from Costa Rica to Panama. If you insist, here is an incredibly accurate way to do it, the photos are spot on and just remember you need to visit 5 offices. We were determined to do it, had our attorney do the appropriate paperwork (cost was $60 and two hours out of the way to meet him to pick it up after the initial meeting), I read up on getting the car to the ferry in Almirante, etc. All of that planning, time and money spent only to find out after visiting said offices, getting our car sprayed and spending about 2 hours in lines, than there is some new Panamanian law stating that a Costa Rican car can only come in if the person driving it is a Costa Rica Resident. Being that we’re 90 day border-jumping touristas, it didn’t matter that all paperwork had my name on it, all stamps, dotted i’s, t’s crossed, etc were in order, they wouldn’t let the car through. Luis spoke with someone who said we could come back later and they could help us out, but it was going to be a 3 hour wait and we were afraid that once we got the car into Panama, it would be difficult to get it out. So we parked it on the Costa Rica side in a parking lot (you can see it down the hill to the left if you walk out of the Costa Rica immigration office, $9/day). We rented a taxi/bus for our family of 4 for $40 from Sixaola to Almirante, but I know this can be cheaper if you share a bus with others and don’t have the bags we have. We travel alot, but our experiences are not what I would call the “light and cheap” type. We don’t waste money either, but if spending it is necessary, we do it, which brings me to my next point.
2. Utilize assistance, but go with your gut on things.
Luis, pictured above, was a huge help, both ways. As a father, traveling internationally can be extremely stressful to ensure the safety of your family, make sure everyone is where you can see them and remaining calm when children are distracted by literally everything. Some people are ridiculously independent, others are paranoid they’re getting ripped off. There’s something empowering about trusting someone, letting them do what they do, for a fee, so you can focus on other important things, like “do you have visual on her?” comments with your wife about your daughter. I was skeptical at first, a small handful of people were willing to help, from showing us parking spots to watching our car. Luis walked up, said “I help people cross the border, if you need me, I can help.” Then he brought over 4 immigration slips for me to fill out, asked if I needed a pen, and gave us space. Not only did he show me to all 5 offices, when the 5th one didn’t work out, he walked me back to those where he knew I would get a refund for the taxes and insurance. On top of that, Luis was waiting for us in Almirante with a driver and bus to help us on our way back.
3. Include your children in the process.
Ticos love children, it’s a wonderful thing. Panamanians do as well, we found out. In a long line of faces trying to get their documentation stamped, a smiling and waving child saying “hola!” can do wonders for your processing time. Families can go to the front of the lines and aside from maybe 2 sighs from those in a hot line, none of the officials care. At immigration they need to see faces anyway, so bring your kids up first, have them say hello and then they can go back to doing whatever you need them to do to remain occupied.
4. If you’re working, take the day off on border crossing days.
This isn’t always a luxury and our plans got snafu’d when our kids got sick in Puerto Viejo and had to be taken to the clinic. Doctor’s orders were that we had to stay until Monday, which meant our plan of crossing on Saturday were foiled. I usually try not to do meetings on Mondays anyway, but sometimes you have to be on calls when clients can and want to do so. Even if you’ve crossed a border before, you have no idea how long things can take and there’s very little (nothing) you can do to speed things up. Having a phone call scheduled before or after means you are rushing the crossing at one point of the day or the other. Reduce your level of stress, take the day off, especially phone calls and if you absolutely have things you need to do, they can wait until you get to your destination.
TLDR; Don’t take your car, ask for help, use your children as ambassadors and take more days off. :)